Good Visualization Approaches for Sustainability’s Bad News



As consumers, when it comes to sustainability, we are surrounded by bad news:

Global warming, water scarcity, air pollution, loss of biodiversity, human rights abuses, carbon emissions, poor working condition…

The list goes on and on.

Fortunately, technology increasingly allows us to track and trace the back-stories of everyday products related to these sustainability topics to minute, real-time, detail. Unfortunately, information alone does not change consumer behavior.

“…The diversity of barriers which exist for any sustainable activity means that information campaigns alone will rarely bring about behavior change.” –Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Fostering Sustainable Behavior.

Convincing people to adjust their behavior in order to adopt more sustainable patterns is much more difficult than simply providing the data. Numbers can appeal to the head, but the real action has to come from the heart. We need to find ways to connect to people with this information on an emotional level. This is where design can really shine.

Visual Communication can utilize the following techniques to help sustainability messages ignite behavioral changes: make messages visually vivid, in-context and individualized.

“The Visual [Emotional] Vocabulary of Sustainability” Arlene Birt-Interaction14 from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Vivid Visuals

In his book ‘Fostering Sustainable Behavior’, Doug McKenzie-Mohr makes the argument that “vivid, concrete and personalized” information inspires attention and increases the likelihood of the information being recalled later. Information that is remembered is more likely to have a lasting impact on our attitudes and behavior.

For communication designers, this is good news, we are –after all- experts at making visuals vivid and memorable. ‘Vivid’ can be applied to a lot of communication tactics, but as a designer, I like to focus on the visual opportunities.

Visualization can help people understand how their individual actions connect to the bigger picture of social and environmental sustainability. In particular, visual stories can help people understand the larger context that they operate within, and create a strong connection between abstract sustainability concepts and the daily, individual actions of consumers.

In Context Information

Visuals that display the larger system or context surrounding an object, action or decision, can also serve to educate consumers. The more individuals understand about the social and environmental consequences of their actions, the better they can be armed with information to make more responsible decisions.

Words are great for details and statistics, but visuals are the true rockstars when the goal is to help people understand systems-thinking scenarios and visualize the bigger picture –without the semantics of words getting in the way.

Individualized Information

Because of their strength in communicating context, visual stories have the potential to connect people with their individual role within the greater social and environmental landscape.

Data sets can be visualized, but until the information is framed within an individual’s experience, it will be hard to connect the data to everyday actions in daily life. Distilling one of these global bad news topics into a single, actionable item can empower a consumer to understand his or her own role within the system.

Connecting Audiences with Sustainability

We know that data and information is a part of nudging consumers toward more sustainable behaviors, it’s just not the full Monty. Plato himself is widely credited with saying “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.”

As innovations enable sustainability information (aka. ‘knowledge’) to be collected, design can help us evolve ways to help this growing pool of information touch consumers on an emotional level in order to trigger the desire to inspire change. Framing information within context and personalizing it to individual experiences using vivid visuals is a good place to start transforming some of this bad news into action items for positive change.

Arlene Birt’s (article author) new course Visual Communications for Sustainability is open for registration. It runs for 10 weeks from June 9-August 15 and is offered 100% online.

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